September 22, 2006

Faithful Lines / Shirley Vogler Meister

Musing over the myriad faces of fear

During the past few weeks, we commemorated the tragedies of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, as well as natural disasters caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita a year ago.

As I prayed for those who perished or survived the disasters, I thought about the powerful fear they must have experienced.

Fear can bring us to our knees—in more ways than one—but it can also motivate courage.

One day, while musing over this, I picked up my as yet unread Aug. 10 issue of The New York Review. Imagine my surprise when I came across the following notice from Professor Gyan Prakash, director of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University in New Jersey:

“During the academic year [the above center], will focus on the study of fear in history. We invite students from all disciplines to examine fear as an historical experience, its generative, productive as well as negative and destructive roles in history, and the processes by which it operates, spreads, dissipates and is countered.

“As in the past, we hope to address topics and problems from a wide variety of periods and places, from prehistory to the present, and from all parts of the world.”

What are the chances of me running into this notice as I pondered fear? With added interest, I read topics that could be covered, including but not limited to the following:

  • the emotional and psychic texture of fear in historical situations,
  • the mode of fear’s operation, circulation and dissolution,
  • people’s fear of the state and the state’s fears as reflected in its generation of documentation and archives,
  • fear of disease, war, empire and imperial dissolution,
  • fear of racial, religious, political, ideological and sexual contamination,
  • fear of disorder or the imposition of order,
  • fear of change and fear of stasis,
  • fear of technology and the projection of alternatives.

My primary personal fears are related to physical or spiritual well-being. Some of the latter comes when honestly answering questions, such as: Do I understand the will of God? Do I let biblical and Church teachings educate and guide me? Do I keep an open heart and mind when interacting with others, especially those who don’t think as I do? Am I living Christ’s love? If not, I’m afraid.

The center at Princeton offers “a limited number of research fellowships designed for highly recommended younger scholars who have finished their dissertations on fear” by a Dec. 1 application deadline.

For more information, log on to or write the Center at 129 Dickinson Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544-1017.

(Shirley Vogler Meister, a member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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